Despite the area's severe weather advisories on Tuesday evening, dozens of students filled the conference room at St. Mary’s University conference room to hear a special "Community Conversations" panel discuss the various voting and election challenges in San Antonio.
Maybe the turnout had something to do with the cast of panelists, which included City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), Henry Flores, director of the Master of Public Administration Program at St. Mary’s University and a political science professor, and Laura Barberena, political communications consultant and VIVA Politics owner. Rebecca Cedillo, chairwoman of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, served as the panel moderator.
The large crowd could have been attracted by the topic itself, which seems to be gaining traction in the wake of primary election results that have upended even the wildest political fantasies. For better or for worse, Flores said, these elections are showing that more people are voting.
But the national trend doesn’t always translate locally and municipal elections in San Antonio have historically drawn a paltry number of voters.
“Apathy and ambivalence are totally not acceptable anymore,” said Cedillo. “We need to be educated and in turn educate others.”
The Institute for Public Administration, Politics and Public Policy at St. Mary’s University has hosted the "Community Conversations" series since 2011. But the Tuesday event was intended to be educational while serving as a call-to-action.
Nirenberg opened the dialogue by pointing out that San Antonio reflects the nation's demographic future, and that the comprehensive planning efforts of SA Tomorrow, which builds on the vision citizens outlined in SA2020, demands civic participation. Without that kind of engagement, San Antonio and cities like it will face an uphill battle in planning a future that represents its population, he said.
“The reason why this is important is because the transformative change (on issues like transportation, education and water security) … is going to require political choices by political leaders who get voted into office by you,” he said.
Last year, Nirenberg proposed moving municipal elections from May to November of even-numbered years to increase voter turnout. He noted then that the May 9, 2015 general election—on a ballot that contained a mayoral race, 10 council races and six ballot propositions—drew only 12% of registered voters. When the City of Austin switched its municipal elections from May to November, voter turnout increased four-fold. Nirenberg also worked with VIA Metropolitan Transit officials to offer free rides to the polls when residents show their voter registration cards.
“We have to recognize that civic engagement doesn’t begin and end with voting,” Nirenberg said. “It starts with conversations like this.”
Nirenberg has hosted several Kids Town Hall meetings to help students understand local government and help them see how they can make a difference in their communities. One town hall resulted in a much-needed sidewalk getting built for Garcia Middle School students who advocated for the change when they met Nirenberg. Click to read: "District 8 Community Academy Gets Citizens Engaged."
Still, low voter-turnout has been an issue for the city for decades, Flores said. He noted that he worked on a study that identified 16 variables that keep people from participating in their electoral duties, including mundane hurdles like bad weather, a lack of childcare and lack of reliable transportation options. But most people who don’t vote stay on the sidelines because they don’t understand the way the civic process works or they don’t think their voice will matter, he added.
“On a day to day basis, I interact with my city government from the moment I drive out of the house,” Flores told the crowd, adding that people don’t understand how important their participation is. “You tuck away a city council vote in May and what do you have? Low participation rates.”
But politicians may not be eager to change a system that got them elected, Flores added.
“Why wouldn’t politicians want us voting? That’s a rhetorical question,” he said, drawing laughs.
Flores mused about the possibility of one day being able to vote using a smart phone, imagining a secure service that would provide you voting notifications that included a reminder, information about each candidate and issue and the opportunity to cast a digital ballot.
Students in the crowd listened eagerly, some shaking their heads in approval. The simplicity of it!
Barberena, who was the last to speak, focused her presentation on the challenges that women face who run for office. For starters, representation is low. Only about 20% of elected officials statewide and in national positions are women, Barbarena noted, even though they make up more than 50% of the population.
She summed up the challenges women face with three m's: moxie, money and mentors. Women often have to fight against internalized ideas that they’re not competent enough, must struggle to raise money or often lack the mentors that would encourage them to run for office, she said. Women in the audience silently nodded as she added that many women are often still expected to manage the bulk of childcare and household duties, which can squeeze political ambitions.
Although we’d like to think that gender doesn’t matter and that men and women are treated equally, the reality is that we’re not there yet, Barberena said. She showed a slide that had pictures of Hillary Clinton’s various hairstyles and a quote from the presidential contender: “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just have to change my hairstyle.”
But Barbarena had some uplifting words for ladies thinking of jumping into the political fray: “If you’re thinking off running for office, get your village together and hold them tight.” She added optimistically that she sees the percentage of women holding political office increasing in the future.
The call to action from Nirenberg and Flores encouraged attendees to participate in local elections, and to get involved with their communities by educating themselves and others on the political process.
“Don’t let the future happen to you,” Cedillo said in closing. “Make it happen for you.”
*Top Image: A voting registration booth at the Texas A&M-San Antonio mayoral forum. Photo by Scott Ball.